Tag: Susie Dent

bitcoin

Language review 2013: from bitcoin to sharknado

Everyone loves a new word. When Oxford announces its Word of the Year, I sometimes detect behind the buzz of expectation a pang of disappointment that the chosen ‘winner’ isn’t a brand new invention. The romantic allure of a mint-new coinage, the inspiration of a single moment in time, is hard to resist. The truth […]

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samuel johnson

Johnson and Grose: lexicography’s odd couple

April 15 marks the anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755), a work that’s today universally recognized as an astonishing feat of solo lexicography. The publication, in 1755, rightly attracted great attention; David Garrick wrote a poetic eulogy to mark the achievement in the Public Advertiser, describing Johnson as ‘like a hero […]

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Where do odd idioms like 'in a nutshell' and 'by the skin of your teeth' come from?

6 popular idioms explained

Let’s have a look at some of the curious idioms found in the English language. The explanations are often stranger than you might imagine! Where does the expression ‘by the skin of my teeth’ come from? After Shakespeare, a prolific coiner of new words, the King James translation of the Bible has been the biggest […]

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shutterstock_110095070

So far, so bad.

I found myself looking up the origin of ‘curmudgeon’ last week. Defined as ‘bad-tempered, difficult, or cantankerous’, its components once meant, more or less, ‘a growling grimacer’. This last description sums up almost exactly my facial expression when I hear a language tic of the moment that has knocked ‘going forward’ off the top of […]

The meaning of nice and bully have both changed drastically over time.

What is the strangest change in a word’s meaning?

I can only give a very subjective answer, but I’ll start with a few nominations. Most of the words in everyday English have been in (and occasionally out of) circulation for centuries. A study of them in a historical dictionary such as the Oxford English Dictionary, which charts chronologically the story of a word from […]

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What is a contronym or Janus word?

What is a contronym?

Single words that have two contradictory meanings are known as contronyms. The number of contronyms in English is small, but they are significant. Contronym list dust: 1 to remove dust. 2 to cover with dust. hysterical: 1 frightened and out of control. 2 funny. nervy: 1 showing nerve or courage. 2 excitable and volatile. moot: […]

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The term swashbuckler is another word for pirate.

What is the origin of ‘swashbuckler’?

The traditional swashbuckler definition, as it appears by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), is as ‘a swaggering bravo or ruffian; a noisy braggadocio’, was, indeed, someone who ‘swashed his buckle’. To ‘swash’, in the sixteenth century, was to dash or strike something violently, while a ‘buckler’ was a small round shield, carried by a handle at the back. So […]

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drunk

Why does English have so many terms for being drunk?

There are many hundreds of words and phrases for being drunk, not just in modern times, but also throughout the history of slang. A study by one of today’s leading chroniclers of slang, Jonathon Green, of half a millennium’s worth of collected material—amounting to almost 100,000 words and phrases—shows the extent to which the same […]

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